Is a Pastor Called to Lordship or Servanthood


Church dissension is as old as the Church itself, and disruptions in the fellowship of the local congregation may generally be traced to differences in personality, doctrine or policy. The Charismatic renewal of recent years has fostered the establishing of thousands of local churches made up of Christians from varied denominational backgrounds brought together by a common experience with the Holy Spirit.

These interdenominational fellowships range from small groups meeting in homes or rented halls to thousands gathered in huge auditoriums. Despite all the efforts to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), and notwithstanding the commonality that led them to lay aside denominational variances, such churches have not been exempt from the same schismatic tendencies that have threatened the more traditionally structured churches.

Of particular danger to independent churches, though certainly not confined to them, is a misunderstanding of the authoritative role of the pastor. There is a treacherous teaching in some Charismatic circles that the pastor is an autocratic chief who lords it over the congregation committed to him. Nothing can be done of any importance in the church unless he is present. The desires of the people in all matters are subordinated to his own, and he himself is subject to no one. He administers all the finances, appoints all the church officials (if such are deemed necessary), names the teachers and makes all decisions concerning the ministry of the church. Sometimes no meetings for prayer or Bible study, even in private homes, are allowed unless the pastor is present. This amounts, of course, to a “one man rule” concept of authority.

Such autocratic clericalism represents nothing but a travesty of New Testament ministry, and is destructive of the church, defiant to the Holy Spirit and disobedient to Christ. The pastor is certainly called to speak for God, and his very presence should remind people of God. However, he must constantly bear in mind that he is not God, and must always be on guard against acting as if he were. The church is in trouble when its pastor considers that he owns it and acts accordingly, arbitrarily excommunicating anyone who dares to disagree with his policies. Distortion, and often disaster, comes when the pastor forgets that he is called not to dominate, but to serve.

The Third Epistle of John speaks of Diotrephes, a ruling elder in a local church who liked to put himself first. He made excessive and improper claims to authority, and used his authority to threaten excommunication if his demands were not met. His very words were malicious. In the face of such a situation John bypassed the ruling elder, and wrote to a church member of spiritual quality in order to commend him for engaging in a practice contrary to the dictates of Diotrephes, and to encourage him to continue. The spirit of Diotrephes ought to remind us that we are called not to lordship, but to oversight.

Too much harm is done when the top-dog syndrome causes the pastor to act like an evangelical guru, accountable to no one, making arbitrary decisions, and pleading the famous text, “Touch not mine anointed. ” It has been my observation that the untouchables soon become the unteachables, and that kind of superstar status is fraught with a variety of dangers. The subject-to-none pastor might rebuke his people when they are wrong, but who rebukes him when he is wrong? Has 1 Timothy 5:19, 20 been deleted from the Scriptures? Ministry must never be thought of in terms of status, but rather in terms of function. In the New Testament church, as we shall see, are found both leadership and authority, but no kind of hierarchical structure.

Clergy and Laity

No doubt the problem of authority has been abetted by a rigid distinction between clergy and laity, a distinction concerning which
the New Testament church knew nothing, either in form, language or theory. On the contrary, the ministry was coextensive with the entire church, and it is impossible to find any biblical authority for reserving special functions solely for the ordained ministry. The sharp division between priest and people in the Old Testament is missing in the New Testament, which teaches that we are all priests alike. Hiereus, “priest,” is never used in the New Testament for someone who holds a distinct office in the church.

If we were to ask any first-century Christian about the difference between a clergyman and a layman, we would draw a blank. Nowhere does the New Testament recognize two classes of Christians, the professional and the amateur, and the terms “clergy” and “laity” are never used to separate the ordained ministry from the rank and file of church members.

The word “clergy” comes from the Greek kleros, meaning “lot” or “inheritance.” In its essential New Testament meaning, kleros refers to the “lot” or share in the inheritance of God which belongs to all those in Christ, not merely a small section of them. For instance, God the Father “has qualified us to share (touklerou) in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12, NASB). Simon the sorcerer had “no part or portion (kleros) in this matter” (Acts 8:21, NASB). Paul testified that the risen Lord sent him to the Gentiles “that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance (kleron) among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18, NASB). Not until the third century was kleros used for those who held office in the church, in distinction from the rest of God’s people.

The term “layman” comes from laikos, which the Greeks used to refer to the uneducated masses. This word is altogether absent from the New Testament. However, its cognate laos, which means simply “people,” is used for the whole company of God’s chosen ones. All together “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people (laos) for God’s own possession” (I Pet. 2:9, NASB). Once again, not until the third century was laikos commonly used in the context of the church. In the biblical sense of the words, then, all clergy are laymen, and all laymen are also clergy.

The Function of Authority

What is written above in no way denies a distinction in the New Testament between the general body of Christians and those called by God to a particular kind of ministry within the body of Christ. Neither is it oblivious to the clear evidence of what we call the ordained ministry, nor to the authority given to those in this group. The New Testament definitely establishes authoritative roles and calls for submission to those in authority. What we must determine, then, is not the fact of authority, but its proper function.

Authority in the local church is a shared authority. When ruling authority or governance in the local church is discussed, elders are almost always mentioned in the plural. The only exceptions are in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:7, which deal with the qualifications of a bishop (elder). However, neither passage implies the existence of a singular leader in a church.

The only hint of monarchical episcopacy in the New Testament is the telling comment about Diotrephes, who, as we have seen, wanted to dominate (3 John 9). Nowhere else is there the slightest suggestion of a one-man rule or ministry. There may indeed have been a presiding elder, but always, even in the smallest and youngest churches (see Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12), there was a shared responsibility, whereby mutual encouragement, protection and correction could be realized. The writings of the early church fathers indicate that the same pattern continued until the tragic division between priest and people developed in the third and fourth centuries.

Authority in the local church is a caring authority. Much abuse of authority would be avoided if the person in authority understood and accepted his biblical role. There are two main verbs used in the New Testament which describe the nature of pastoral authority. The first is proistemi, which has a root meaning of “to stand before,” hence “to be the head of….. to lead. ” It is interesting, however, that the word always emphasizes not leadership with power but with the responsibility of concern, care and giving aid.

This meaning may be seen in Romans 12:8, where Paul exhorts leaders to carry out their responsibilities “with diligence,” a word spoude which indicates earnest care (cf. 2 Cor. 7:11, 12; 8:16). A similar use of proistemi is found in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13, where the emphasis is not on the authority of the pastoral office, but on the labor of leaders exercising care and guidance over those in their charge. In 1 Timothy 3:4, 5 managing (proistemi) one’s own household and taking care of the church of God are equivalent expressions; that is, “to manage” (AV, “to rule”) is the same as “to take care of.”

In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul defines worthy rulership (proistemi) not in terms of the exercise of power, but specifically as laboring “at
preaching and teaching. ” Unfortunately, when the separation between clergy and laity became more pronounced in later years, the word was used almost exclusively for the administrative function of elders, thus emphasizing the prerogatives of the pastoral office rather than its function of care.

The second verb used for authority in the church is hegeomai. This word is used in a general sense of governorship, but particularly describes local church leaders in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24. The context reveals the nature of their leadership. Christian leaders are to be remembered and their faith imitated, bearing in mind that they “spoke the word of God to you. ” (v. 7, NASB). They are also to receive obedience and submission, “for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account” (v. 17,NASB; cf. 1 Cor. 16:16).

It is clear, then, that the New Testament prescribes a church eldership or oversight (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Such oversight involves some kind of rule or management. But the emphasis is not so much on the exercise of power as on service to be exercised generally through watching over men’s souls, and in particular, through the teaching of God’s Word and by example.

The Pattern of Authority

There is no question that pastoral authority is prescribed in the New Testament. But to describe that authority in terms of office and status, of power and control, is to wander far afield from basic biblical teachings. The pastor’s authority does not demand submission because of his position, but because of his service. Thus, Paul exhorts the Christians at Thessalonica to “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord … because of their work” (I Thess. 5:12, 13, NASB). Churches need officials committed to service far more desperately than those who are interested in impressing people with their ability to rule.

Sometimes I wonder if ecclesiastical titles are a hindrance rather than a help in the work of the ministry, inasmuch as they set the bearer apart not only from the world at large but from the people for whom he is responsible. Not only so, but they remove him further from his appointed role as servant.

It seems that Jesus and the New Testament writers deliberately eschewed the use of terms which might denote a select and privileged class within the church characterized by domination over others. They chose instead words like diakonos and doulos, secular words describing the menial tasks of a slave. Paul affirmed that our Lord took upon himself the form of a doulos (Phil. 2:7), and Jesus himself declared that he was among us as a diakonos (Luke 22:27).

The word diakonos is a functional word, designating a person who renders acts of service to other people, particularly waiting at
tables. This humble word is utterly incompatible with a hierarchical structure, and reminds us that the Church of the New Testament denies pomp and status for its officials and acknowledges greatness only in terms of service.

This feature of the ministry is amply illustrated by Paul’s horrified reaction to the exaggerated deference paid to church leaders by the Corinthian Christians. With stinging sarcasm he cries out, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul?” (1 Cor. 3:5,NASB). He deliberately uses the neuter pronoun, speaking of himself and Apollos in derogatory and almost scornful terms. In effect, he is asking the Corinthians: “What on earth do you think we are, that you regard us with such ridiculous homage?” Then he answers his own question in a fashion almost denigratory: “We are only servants (diakonoi) whom God has been pleased to use. ” He continues the use of the neuter in v. 7, when he declares that “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything. ”

In the same context, Paul referred to himself and other church leaders as Christ’s huperetas, a word used originally for rowers in the lower tier of a war galley, under-oarsmen (I Cor. 4:1). From that it came to mean: anyone who does something under somebody else as a subordinate or an underling. So Paul does not push his superiority, but acknowledges his subordination. He was a minister, not a master.

In contrast to ecclesiastical celebrities seeking superstar status, genuine servants of the Lord have to be willing to subject themselves to the pitiless gaze of a ridiculing world, to be regarded as fools, and to be considered as the world’s rinsings and scrapings.

Whereas diakonos is functional, doulos is a word indicating relationships. It means quite literally a slave, one who is owned by
another person, with no rights or independent status whatever. Peter and Paul, apostles though they were, apply it to themselves. James and Jude, half-brothers of Jesus, delight to call themselves douloi. In fact, it is a characteristic description of Christians (1 Pet. 2:16; Rev. 1: 1). While the word usually expresses one’s relation to Christ, Paul also used it to describe his relation to his converts (I Cor. 9:10; 2 Cor. 4:5). This graphic word ought to shame into silence arguments about the status and validity of ministries.

The Pattern of Jesus

The highest ministry of all is that of servanthood, and Jesus set the pattern for us to follow in that regard. In his teaching, he
completely reversed the common understanding of leadership. There is certainly no denying that the pattern and glory of His ministry was service.

Jesus acted out the lesson of the royalty of service in graphic fashion at the Last Supper when he washed the disciples’ feet. Relentlessly, in words recorded in John 13:12-17, he pressed home to them the revolutionary idea that greatness is measured in terms of service.

It is a confession of our own failure to follow the example of our Lord when we reflect on the fact that we are more prone to wear the robes of the ruler than the apron of the servant.

Although he does not describe the foot washing, Luke’s account of the Last Supper indicates that the action of Jesus arose out of a quarrel among the disciples over precedence and status (Luke 22:24). Like many of us, they would fight for the throne of authority but not for the towel of servanthood.

Christ’s teaching in response to this attitude is unmistakable, both here and following the request of James and John for places of honor in the kingdom. You may recall that the other 10 were indignant at the brothers. The reason for their displeasure is not difficult to see, in light of the dispute later at the supper. They wanted the throne themselves.

Note the patient but pointed instruction of the Lord: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over thee, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your diakonos, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your doulos (Matt. 20:25-27, NASB).

The contrast is striking. Pagan leadership is marked by lordship and authority. Christian leadership is characterized by service, even slavery. This lesson needs to be heeded by contemporary church leaders: passion for domineering power must be transformed into passion for diakonia.

The choice between lordship and servitude confronts every pastor. Paul faced that choice and wrote, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24, NASB). Peter faced it and admonished, “Nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:3).

The pastor, then, is not a lord but a servant, not a boss but a fellow worker and example.

In paying undue deference to church leaders, the Corinthians were claiming to belong to Paul or to Apollos or to someone else (I Cor. 1: 12). Paul in response taught that the opposite was the case. If anybody belonged to anybody, it was the leaders who belonged to the people. “All things belong to you,” including Paul and Apollos (I Cor. 3:2 1, 22).

That teaching has an application today. It is more proper for a congregation to say “my pastor” than it is for the pastor to say “my
congregation,” for the pastor belongs to the church, and not the church to the pastor. The church is not to be regarded as an estate to be farmed for the pastor’s own profit nor a garden to be trimmed to his own taste.

The English expositor and pastor Charles Bridges recognized this truth, as seen in these words first published in 1830:

“The great Shepherd, indeed, who gave Himself for, gave us to, the flock, and there is no more responsible thought connected with our work, than the obligation of giving ourselves to our people, so that they shall be led to prize us as a gift from Christ. Oh! That we might be able to tell them ‘We belong to Christ, and He has given us to you; we owe our whole selves entirely to you; we are your servants for Jesus’ sake; we have given ourselves to the work, and we desire to be in it, as if there was nothing worth living for besides: it shall form our whole pleasure and delight. We will consecrate our whole time, our whole reading, our whole mind and heart to this service. (The Christian Ministry, p. 106.)

But our great example is Jesus. The pattern and glory of His ministry was service, and we can and must make that pattern our own, because, in truth, our ministry is an extension of His. Christ would have had refrangible credentials if He had desired to rely on status and authority. But He never entertained such a thought, because to Him the authority of the servant lay simply in the fact of His service.

Surely the church would be strengthened if Christian leaders followed in this revolutionary path of their Lord, a way so contrary to the natural man that it cannot fail to point God’s people to the beauty of service, and thus provide an impetus for their own sacrificial service.

Pastors don’t need to declare and defend the authority of their office. They simply need to discover and practice its true function.

The greatest control the pastor can gain over the congregation is not the power of strong-arm tactics, but the power of foot-washing service, and that in itself arises from superior self-forgetfulness.

Jerry Horner is the dean of the School of Biblical Studies at CBN University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He has served as chairman of the theology department of Oral Roberts University and Southwest Baptist University. He received the B.A. degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and M.div. and Th.D degrees at South-western Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and has served as pastor and interim pastor of churches in Tennessee, Texas and Missouri.